Defining the “Sum of All Knowledge” in What Maisie Knew and The Turn of the Screw

In his essay, ‘The Art of Fiction’ (1884), Henry James writes ‘the only classification of the novel that I can understand is into the interesting and the uninteresting’. Here, and elsewhere in his writing, James eschews the constraints of textual form, and advocates the novelist’s freedom, as an artist, to experiment in their work. This experimentation, so important to James, is clear in his novels What Maisie Knew (1897) and The Turn of the Screw (1898). Although these texts were published just one year apart, their narrative styles differ greatly. This contrasts to the stylistic homogeneity of the ‘old fashioned English novels’ of Dickens or Eliot. ‘What Maisie Knew’ is a third person narrative, primarily focalised[1] through the character of Maisie, who grows from ‘young infant’ to a ‘precocious adolescent’ over the course of the novel. ‘The Turn of the Screw’, conversely, utilises first person narration, with the Governess telling her own story. Added layers of narrative complexity are created by the fact that the account has been retrospectively written by the Governess, and is now being recounted, following her death, by the character of Douglas. In both texts, the key focalisors (Maisie and the Governess) are striving to obtain a personal ‘sum of all knowledge’. For Maisie, this ‘knowledge’ is to comprehend and navigate the uniquely adult world in which she lives, whilst for the Governess it is to understand the true nature of the children in her care, and the ghosts that haunt them.

Analysis of focalisation is important when considering knowledge in the novels. In each of the texts, and in literary texts more widely, there are three main parties to ‘knowledge’. The characters, who can share knowledge between or withhold knowledge from one another; the focalisor/narrative voice who presents knowledge (sometimes limited, sometimes altered) to the reader; and the reader, who receives knowledge from the text. In his Preface to ’What Maisie Knew’, James wrote that he had intended to create ‘a picture restricted (while yet achieving… completeness ad coherency)… what the child might be conceived to have understood’. That is, the events of the novel are experienced by the reader through the narrative lens of Maisie’s character. The focalisation of the novel shifts between external focalisation (‘The litigation had seemed interminable and had in fact been complicated’) and character-bound focalisation (from Maisie’s point of view). The content of the novel is uniquely grounded in the adult world (divorce, sexual relationships, adultery) and it is artistically intriguing to view these themes from a child’s perspective.

Maisie’s focalisation and, by extension, the reader’s access to knowledge, is undoubtedly limited. She is a small child for most of the narrative, and whilst she has ‘many…perceptions’ she is lacking the ‘terms to translate them’; she is living in a ‘phantasmagoric’ world. This idea is reminiscent of Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) in which an older Jane comments: ‘Children can feel, but they cannot analyse their feelings’. Furthermore, it is made explicit that Maisie’s access to knowledge, as well as her interpretation of it, is limited. She recognises that there are many aspects of her life which she has grown up knowing ‘never to ask about’. Moreover, there are times when Maisie focalises the text, and yet is not actively engaged in understanding what is going on around her. For example, when Mrs Wix and Sir Claude are discussing his separation from Mrs Farange, Maisie is absent-mindedly ‘[helping] herself afresh to bread and butter’.

How reliable the sources of Maisie’s knowledge are is one issue that remains unclear. Although Mrs Wix tells Maisie that her mother is familiar with Lord Eric, the Captain disputes this, proclaiming ‘she mixed him up, your old governess. He’s an awful beast. Your mother never looked at him’. The Captain also offers an alternative view on Mrs Farange, ‘the first real kindness’, to the one held by both Maisie and the reader by the novel’s end (‘I assure you she has had the most infernal time, no matter what any one says to the contrary. She’s the cleverest woman I ever saw in all my life. She’s too charming.’). In this way, the character-bound focalisation of the novel restricts the reader to Maisie’s sources of knowledge.

It would be reductive to say, however, that Maisie’s focalisation does provide the reader with any substantial knowledge. She has a ‘desire for information’ and her character is very perceptive: she knows ‘at the age of six…that everything had been changed on her account’ and she can ‘perfectly see how many subjects [Mrs Wix] was afraid of…’. Furthermore, as she grows older, she also ‘[grows] sharper’ and begins to take meaningful knowledge from the ‘collection of images and echoes kept for her in the childish dusk’. Indeed, by the end of the novel Maisie has been so inquisitive, and the adult world so ready to impart its knowledge, that ‘there’s nothing she hasn’t heard’ (Mrs Beale). ‘The Turn of The Screw’, in contrast’, has a multilayered structure of focalisation. The character-bound focalisor ‘I’ relates Douglas’ telling of the Governess’ story. The Governess’ manuscript itself, although written in the first person, is a retrospective narrative, and therefore may not provide ‘accurate’ knowledge to the reader. This is because memory tends to be ‘rhetorically overworked’ (Mieke Bal). This is evident when the Governess recalls her first night at Bly:

‘There had been a moment when I believed I recognised, faint and far, the cry of a child; there had been another when I found myself just consciously starting as at the passage, before my door, of a light footstep. But these fancies were not marked enough not to be thrown off, and it is only in the light, or the gloom, I should rather say, of other and subsequent matters that they now come back to me.

Therefore, the narratives of both novels are limited in their provision of knowledge.

In both ‘What Maisie Knew’ and ‘The Turn of the Screw’ knowledge engenders distances between textual parties (characters, focalisors, readers). In ‘The Turn of the Screw’ the focalisor (Governess) does not withhold any knowledge from the reader and presents it in chronological order. For example, at the end of the novel when Miles passes away, the shock of this occurrence is mutually shared by the reader and the focalisor. There have been no earlier references to this event and so both parties experience it in ‘the present’. This is an active choice by James, as the manuscript is retrospective, so the timeline could have been taken out of chronological order. Similarly, when Flora’s ‘little bed’ is found empty, when Miles is discovered to be ‘the presence on the lawn’ and when Flora is found at the side of the lake, the shock is mutual. In ‘What Maisie Knew’ this technique of shared vision is utilised when ‘mamma’ is witnessed by Maisie with the ‘Captain’ ‘at the end of the glade’, and when Beale is seen with his new lover at the Exhibition. However, not all of ‘What Maisie Knew’ is so traditional in form. For example, the narrator comments at the end of Chapter 9 that ‘somehow it was brought fully to the child’s knowledge that her stepmother had been making attempts to see her’, and yet precisely how this came about it not explained until later. There is therefore a disconnect in knowledge.

Distances are also created between characters. Mrs Grose, for example, clearly knows more than she is revealing about the situation at Bly. When Grose is scared by the image of the Governess looking in through the window, the Governess wonders ‘why she should be scared’ (if she had never seen the ghost of Quint). This is affirmed by the Governess’ perception of a ‘far-away faint glimmer of a consciousness more acute’ in Mrs Grose’s features. Further, the Governess is haunted by the ‘idea that… Miles and Flora’ see ‘more’ than she does. The possession of knowledge is linked to power in both texts, and this is clear when Flora, ‘the child of eight!’, pretends she cannot see the ghost of Miss Jessel. By withholding this information from her Governess, Flora clearly assumes a position of power. Analogously, in ‘What Maisie Knew’ Maisie, although she is ‘on Claude’s side’, keeps from him for a period Mr Perriam’s visit to the house. The focalisor is, in this case, the deceitful child. As a result, the reader is aware of Maisie’s feelings, and they are more inclined to sympathise with her.

The protagonists in both texts strive towards a personal ‘sum of all knowledge’. Maisie hopes to understand the affairs of the adult world. She achieves this to an extent, seeing ‘more and more’ as the novel progresses until she eventually considers herself to be ‘on the road to know Everything’. However, the most important knowledge she obtains is that of ‘moral sense’, which leads her to choose Mrs Wix as her guardian over Sir Claude and Mrs Beale (in whom she sees too much of her parents). In ‘The Turn of The Screw’, conversely, the Governess fails to understand Miles and Flora, and although she claims to ‘know everything’, she actually moves into ‘a darker obscure’. The ending of the novel is very ambiguous, and the only definite knowledge she is left with is Miles’ ‘supreme surrender of the name [of the ghost]’ and therefore his acknowledgment of its existence.

[1] Focalisation terminology from Mieke Bal’s ‘Narratology’ (1985)

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